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Dallas players lament lost season, Phillips points to bright side

IRVING, Texas -- No NFC championship game at home, no shot at a record sixth Super Bowl.

That 13-3 regular season? The NFL-record 12 Pro Bowlers? All wasted.

The Dallas Cowboys woke up to those cold realities Monday, a day after being eliminated by the New York Giants, a team they'd already beaten twice.

"For it to fall apart like it did is mindboggling," tight end Jason Witten said. "You don't know what to do now."

Trying to figure out how it happened was the first step.

"I think we clinched so early we got a little complacent," said receiver Patrick Crayton, his point backed up by a 1-3 finish.

"We made too many mental errors," said special teams captain Keith Davis, pointing to 11 penalties against the Giants.

"We just didn't make enough big plays," veteran linebacker Greg Ellis said.

Then there was coach Wade Phillips' take: "After looking at the tape, I feel like the best team lost the game."

Phillips offered all sorts of nuggets to try masking the pain of both the loss and the elimination, from stressing Dallas' statistical success against New York (only 57 yards allowed in the second half) to the Cowboys making the final eight for the first time since 1996.

So it was a bye that got Dallas into the second weekend, not an actual postseason victory. But Phillips wasn't interested in those deflating facts, nor the tidbit that the Cowboys just tied the NFL playoff futility mark by dropping its sixth straight game.

"The arrow is pointing up on this team," he said.

Any explanation for Tony Romo and the offense nose-diving from 32.5 points while going 12-1 all the way down to 12.2 points the rest of the way?

"Maybe we raised the level so high we couldn't keep it up," Phillips said.

What about the complacency Crayton mentioned or the bye weekend vacations by Romo and others?

"I don't know," said Phillips, who is 0-4 as a head coach in the playoffs, with this heartbreaker following the "Music City Miracle" in his previous chance. "I still see improvement, but it's not a day to talk about how we're getting better, what we did better. We lost, that's what happened."

That's why players arrived at work Monday and saw blank spaces where there used to be a "Wall of Winning," posters crammed with pictures and newspaper clippings from each victory.

Equipment guys went around putting helmets on a portable rack, then rolled them away for months of safekeeping. Some players stuffed the contents of their lockers into clear trash bags. One guy was in the corner of a darkened office watching the game film.

Terrell Owens strolled through the locker room on his way to the training room carrying an orange Gatorade cooler, then walked back through empty-handed, offering only, "I'm not saying anything today."

Those who did talk freely used the words "disappointing" and "frustrating."

"Nobody could have told me that we would be doing this today," linebacker Bradie James said. "I believe we had a great regular season, we just didn't win in the playoffs. That's something that's going to be looming over our heads for a while."

While the Cowboys begin their offseason, the Giants are plotting to play the Green Bay Packers. Dallas went 3-0 against those teams during the regular season, which might be part of the reason team owner Jerry Jones was so distraught Sunday night.

This was the Cowboys' big chance to restore the glory of "America's Team."

"That's the toughest part about all this," Witten said.

Once the pain eases, Jones will start gearing up for 2008.

His first priority might have to be the coaching staff, as offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and assistant head coach Tony Sparano are up for head coaching vacancies. Two high-ranking members of the scouting department have left, too.

Then there's the roster, which has 14 players headed to free agency.

Pro Bowl running back Marion Barber, who had 129 yards against the Giants in his first career start, is almost certain to return because he's a restricted free agent. Ditto for starting defensive end Chris Canty.

Two other Pro Bowlers are free agents-to-be: Left tackle Flozell Adams and Davis. Displaced starting running back Julius Jones and cornerbacks Jacques Reeves and Nate Jones also are hitting the open market.

The Cowboys have two first-round picks and plenty of room under the salary cap. They'll likely be looking for another running back, secondary help and a young receiver to ease the load on 30-somethings Owens and Terry Glenn.

For the most part, Dallas' key players will be back, making the Cowboys a likely favorite in the NFC going into next season.

Phillips suggested this disappointment might pay off in the long run, pointing out that Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl the year after going 15-1 and bowing out in the playoffs, Indianapolis won the year after going 14-2 and bowing out in the playoffs and San Diego was knocked off early after going 14-2 but is now in the AFC championship game.

"Sometimes," he said, "it gives you incentive to play the next year better."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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